July 2, 2012

Opinion

Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?

Building capacity to develop research communications skills and competencies for policy influence is not a new thing.+ There are a multitude of players involved in the process who have been working in this area for years. And evaluating that capacity development is not really a new thing either. So why then should I be writing this blog if what I am about to say is nothing new? Because, despite clear recommendations for better support, time and time again, donors, think tanks and consultants keep coming up against the same challenges, leaving research communication to the end of the project, then getting caught up in a cycle of workshops and interventions that are unlikely to have the desired impact, and when researchers or teams are already looking to their next area of work.

I arrive at this type of capacity development from ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme where I have been working with the team to build on ODI’s years of work helping to develop the capacity of researchers and organisations in a variety of contexts, to have impact in the policy realm. Enrique and Martine’s evaluation findings from a recent communications project that RAPID and INASP worked on for IDRC last year identify  some very interesting (though sadly not all new) issues that frequently surface when we do this type of work: contextual concerns – in a short space of time, can a consultant really get to the crux of the project without having a strong working knowledge of the context themself; support often comes at the end of a project so that therefore it feels like it is ‘tagged on’ as an extra dimension, rather than an integral one; and ensuring you have the right people in a team involved in the first place, who can benefit the most from the support.

One recommendation from Enrique and Martine that I don’t think we at ODI have seen before is assessing demand and talking directly to the grantees who need support before a contract is even signed, then deciding whether this capacity support should be provided and to whom. This is also related to another report lesson on researcher incentives and pressures beyond communications and the fact that many do not believe it is their role to engage at all – that it is someone else’s job. Therefore, assessing the demand and finding the right people within the organisation to work with as early as possible is absolutely critical, (and then re-evaluating this throughout the duration of the support, as circumstances alter). And if it looks as if it’s not going to have the necessary impact – consultants and think tanks should have the ability to just say no from the outset.

Yet, despite these and other well-established, clear and very sensible principles, there seem to be a few key confounding factors that often impede their implementation:

The first is funding; although there is a growing consensus of the importance of communicating research, funding for communication has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of the economic downturn and the growing ‘value for money’ agenda. It is not always seen as a major priority in the research cycle and often too closely, and even wrongly, associated with branding and marketing, rather than policy influence. Moreover, even in the communication arena donors often favour interventions that lead directly to visible outputs like, the workshop.

Secondly, as Enrique and Martine emphasise, there is often poor planning: donors and organisations realise quite late into a project and budget cycle that the teams need extra support in this area, but with not much time and little funding, a ‘quick’ workshop is often seen as an immediate ‘magic wand’.  As a blog by my colleague, Ajoy Datta highlights – workshops do give a good introduction to the topic and some initial support, but are unlikely to make a real impact once the participants have left the building.

I also think that there is still the misconception, at some levels, that researchers and teams shouldn’t be thinking about the communication of their work until later in the process or indeed towards the end. However, whoever leads on communications needs to engage with stakeholders as early as possible to ensure relationships are cemented and that ideally decision-makers have buy in.

And finally, well even if they could do all of the above, donors frequently do not have sufficiently flexible mechanisms and incentives to support a more appropriate response, as discussed in a recent ODI background note: Promoting evidence-based decision-making in development agencies.

So faced with all this doom and gloom, what can be done? While workshops can still be useful, in RAPID, we are now trying to incorporate them where possible, as part of a wider and longer involvement in a project, and one where ideally we are involved from the beginning. For example, we are currently working on a two year project with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) on communications support to their grantees, knowledge management development (at an organisational level) and another three year project on monitoring and evaluating grant policy influence. The latter is in consortium with three other regional organisations: CEPA (Sri Lanka), CIPPEC (Argentina) CommsConsult (Zimbabwe).  It is an exciting, though we recognise, rare opportunity to work at different organisational levels to do some thinking, develop tools, research and capacity work in a ‘quality learning laboratory’. Support will be provided by locally based teams working in context, prioritising face-to-face engagement (which does include workshops!), but also using online engagement where necessary. All of this will hopefully help to ensure better impact, longevity and buy in through stronger, more collaborative relationships between researchers and policy-makers, and from our side, better contextual knowledge.

And for other projects, where we are working with smaller organisations and donor budgets, we are trying to ensure that there is additional support around the workshops through mentoring, field trips, local partners and we will certainly take on board the recommendations put forward by Enrique and Martine.  And sharing evaluation findings in early discussions with donors can make a big difference. An organisation I am working with decided to implement more face-to-face support, because the donor read and assimilated the recommendations from another project evaluation report.

Communications capacity development is a constant learning process and there is no best-case, winning magic formula. But nor should there be – because good support is so dependent on the organisation, project, participants and the context, and just ‘shoehorning’ a ready-made approach or template is not going to work. This report contains some useful principles to guide new forms of support and to encourage donors, think tanks and consultants alike to not fall into the same traps of short-term support that frequently only deliver mediocre results. And above all, interventions are far more likely to become embedded into the life of a project (and hopefully beyond) if they are part of the project from the beginning and not left as an afterthought.

About the author:

Caroline Cassidy:  Freelance communications specialist and associate for ODI and On Think Tanks

Read more from: Caroline Cassidy

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